Utah’s leaders are asking the public to “change behaviors” in the hopes of dampening what could be the worst fire season in state history.
Much of Utah has been in severe drought and many forests and brush lands are primed for burning. All it would take is a chain dragging on the pavement, an abandoned campfire, a ricocheting bullet or errant firework to set off a raging fire.
That scenario happened dozens if not hundreds of times last year and Gov. Spencer Cox doesn’t want to see a repeat this summer.
“We’ll be enforcing laws around firefighting, when it comes to controlled burns, when it comes to people using fireworks outside of the areas they’re supposed to, people not putting out their fires,” he told reporters Wednesday. “We’re going to have to have more enforcement this year.”
The press event featured a dozen state, local and federal fire officials to unveil “Fire Sense” a new public education campaign designed to empower people to make better decision while traveling, working and recreating in fire-prone areas.
Cox said the state, federal and local governments will spend “hundreds of millions of dollars” if the fire season turns out as severe as predicted.
Already Utah is already off to a bad start with 227 fires as of Tuesday affecting 8,700 acres. All but eight of the fires were caused by people. Last year at this time, by comparison, saw 86 fires on 804 acres.
“More human-caused wildfires inevitably lead to more threats to lives and property. Given Utah’s current drought conditions, it’s more important than ever this fire season to be cautious with fire and with anything that can cause fire,” said Brian Steed executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. “We absolutely can’t afford to continue this trend of increasing human-caused wildfires that we have seen in the state over the last few years.”
This year’s drought is one for the record books, according to Basil Newmerzhycky, a meteorologist with the Bureau of Land Management’s Great Basin Predictive Fire Weather Program. He said 80% of Utah is currently in an “exceptional drought.” Over the past 30 years, exceptional droughts have only occurred once or twice a decade and only covered 5 to 10% of the state, he said.
The drought is particularly worrisome since the driest conditions don’t usually arrive until August or September.
“It’s going to get much worse before it gets better,” Newmerzhycky said.
With such tinder-dry conditions, fires are easily triggered and difficult to control. Despite strong warnings from fire safety officials, last year was a banner year for human caused fires.
People triggered a record 1,143 wildfires in 2020, or 77% of the total, according to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. But it was lightning, not people, that ignited Utah’s two largest fires which accounted for more than half the acreage burned. In total, wildfire burned nearly 330,000 acres in Utah last year, double the 10-year average. About $77 million was spent fighting these fires.
Last year’s toll was above average but by no means a record. The fire seasons of 2007, 2012 and 2018 were worse, with far more acres burns and structures destroyed.
Still, Utah officials are not ready to ban fireworks or target shooting, two of the leading nonnatural causes of wildfires, on state-controlled land. It’s a different story on federal land.
Earlier this month, the BLM issued sweeping prohibitions on fireworks and use of steel ammunition. And don’t even think about using exploding targets. Those caught violating these orders are subject to a $1,000 fine and could be billed for the cost of fighting any fire they start.
“On Memorial Day, we take time to remember and honor those men and women who gave their lives to protect our nation and the values we hold dear,” said BLM’s Utah State Director Greg Sheehan. “If you do choose to get outside on your public lands over the weekend, please celebrate responsibly and use Fire Sense to help prevent wildfires.”
Fire safety officials urge people to follow these precautions:
Do not leave campfires unattended and completely extinguish them.
Do not drive through or park on dry grass.
Ensure tow chains are not dragging and tow straps are secured.
Ensure spark-arresting devices are properly installed and maintained on internal-combustion engines.
Take extra precautions on “red flag” days.